As every day, Neo opened his eyes at 06:29, just before his alarm went off. Getting out of bed, he went downstairs, boiled the kettle to make tea, and prepared his porridge. 30g of oats, 75ml of milk (semi-skimmed), 15ml of water (tap), medium heat (two-thirds between 4 and 5 on the dial) for ten minutes, and a generous tablespoon of Golden Syrup to liven it up. After finishing his breakfast, he put on his suit (coordinating the colour of his shirt, tie, pants and socks) and left the house at 07:31 for the seven-and-a-half minute walk to the station.
Waiting on the platform, he noted with irritation that the 07:41 was delayed by three minutes – he’d have to pick up the pace at the other end to maintain his routine. He was thankful to get his usual seat, seeing in passing the familiar faces, mostly staring at the floor, their phones, or out of the window. Don’t make eye contact, that wouldn’t be British. Well except ‘Up North’, where he’d heard it was commonplace for strangers to speak to each other on public transport. Madness. The driver had fortunately made up a minute as he arrived at his station, but Neo knew he’d need to be brisk in order to make it to his desk for 08:20. He didn’t have to be in until nine, but it was always helpful to be up and running before his team of three sloped in. Carly was always cutting it fine, breezing in as the university’s clock chimed, and then disrupting the peace and quiet as she settled into her desk, made coffee, and told everyone about her love life and her ancient rabbit. He didn’t really care and was secretly looking forward to ‘Snuggles’ shuffling off his mortal coil, but he feigned interest in the interests of team harmony.
As was now habit, on entering the office, he filled his water bottle from the cooler as his computer came to life, hung up his coat, and then opened his email. There was the usual set of pronouncements from above about some internal research awards, a member of staff on ‘Midlands This Week’, and a new public lecture series on the ancient waterways of the Scottish Highlands. There was also, curiously, a request from a researcher in Education about how far students moved from home to the university. He wondered briefly why that would be of interest, but it didn’t matter. What did matter was that answering it was easy – they had everyone’s home addresses, and pulling that data into an anonymous spreadsheet would be a few minutes’ work. He’d see to it this afternoon.
Closing his email down – it was largely a distraction, noise in the background – he plugged himself into the real business of the day. The first stop after email was always the Virtual Learning Environment, or VLE. He could see that only 143 students – out of 8,256 – were logged in, and most of those hadn’t moved in hours. They’d probably been checking their timetables and had forgotten to log out. Still, it was early in the day, and they were just past a series of deadlines; activity was always down at this time of year. This probably meant that class attendances were down, too – he checked, they were, even on the last three years – and this was a perennial concern for senior management. They perplexingly made a direct connection between attendance and degree grades, and swiftly brought in a university-wide policy to enforce 100% attendance in all classes, even lectures. The latter had required an expensive new system where lecture theatres had to be kitted out with sensors to record the presence of students’ ID cards. The students had wised up pretty quickly, though, and it was only a matter of weeks before the numbers were down again and those that did attend had pockets or bags stuffed with their friends’ student cards. He’d even heard rumours that a racket had grown around it, with a particularly savvy student in Political Science making a small fortune out of coordinating attendances for a small fee.
Overall, it intrigued Neo how keen the university was to optimise every aspect of university life. In between the Finance Director, the Vice Chancellor, and the Associate Dean for Student Enjoyment, they frantically looked for every possible way to game the National Student Survey and any other metrics that were visible to the outside world. Most of them had nothing to do with improving teaching or student life, and recent research had shown that NSS scores had little to no effect on student recruitment anyway. The VC had read the paper, too, he knew, but his own confirmation bias had taken over and he’d rejected the findings out of hand, redoubling the university’s efforts to provide the best student support scores in the Northeast Southern Midlands. Academic staff were now expected to be on call 24 hours a day, and had to respond to any student enquiries within three rings of their mobile phones. Two years of this had made no difference to students’ grades, and staff morale was at an all-time low. The figures were not good news – sick leave was running at five times the sector average.
Every now and then, just out of curiosity, Neo presented the senior management team with the odd curve ball by sharing data on blatantly irrelevant correlations. Even though the VC was a former professor of statistics, he seemed to have entirely disconnected from his academic identity, and desperately clung on to any possible internal policy button that could be pressed to improve the data that appeared on the university league tables. Not long after he’d started, Neo had shared the observation (jokingly, he’d thought) that student participation in online forums was marginally better while ‘The Voice’ was running on ITV. For months afterwards, screens around the university had been peppered with clips from the programme and the VC had included his views on the assorted performances in his weekly message to students. The management were then baffled when there was no overall change in online engagement. The fact that ‘The Voice’ ran over the crunch times of main deadlines and so on had bypassed the entire senior team.
In spite of the nonsense and game-playing around the numbers, Neo found it fascinating to watch, through them, the ebb and flow of university life, the daily and annual rhythms of the campus. You could see so much of what was going on, from library access to coffee shop till receipts, or late night forum discussions and even students’ movements between student halls in the middle of the night. Organisations are like living organisms, and Neo sometimes felt like a physician, monitoring the health of the patient. It was clear that some of the treatments were no better than placebos, but the growth of – and appetite for – data management created jobs for him and his team. There were national and international conferences on it, and a new journal was coming out, too. He was planning on running a seminar with colleagues from a neighbouring university on knee-jerk responses to spurious correlations, but he’d have to call it something else or the university would get wind of it.
He was distracted momentarily by Carly bustling into the office. Snuggles was, sadly, still with us. He looked back at the graph which the monitoring system had just produced. It had red-flagged how the replacement rate for toasters in student halls was 3% above the global mean, and he pitied the Estates Team when they were drawn over the coals about it. He looked over his shoulder and surreptitiously fudged the data slightly. No point creating fuss about nothing.